Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

Introduction

In 1998, Square released Final Fantasy Tactics in North America – a strategy RPG spinoff of their flagship franchise. The game was met with a tepid response at first, but fans eventually warmed up to it. Retrospectives have since gone on to declare it one of the strongest titles in the original PlayStation’s library. A few years later, Square would reach a publishing agreement with their old affiliates at Nintendo. They would use this opportunity to create a sequel to their sleeper hit, intending to develop it for Nintendo’s newest handheld console at the time: the Game Boy Advance. The game that would result from this project was completed in 2003 under the name, “Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.”

Playing the Game

As suggested by its name, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is a tactical role-playing game. Combat employs an action-by-action system. The order in which a character can act is determined by their speed. Intuitively, combatants with the highest speed move first. Having a high speed can be a big advantage because faster characters can potentially move twice before the slowest ones depending on how large the disparity is.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance - Battle

Once a character has completed their turn, you choose which direction they face. This is important because attacking an enemy from the side or back increases your party members’ accuracy while a frontal assault is far less effective. Naturally, it’s best to have your character face a direction that would make it difficult for your opposition to get the drop on them. As battles take place with a consistent sense of scale – a small one at that – there aren’t really terrain bonuses per se. Instead, elevation plays minor a role in conflicts. As one would expect, the higher ground is advantageous as ranged weapon users such as archers have a difficult time hitting opponents from below.

The series’ signature job system first introduced in Final Fantasy III makes a return for this game. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance features five distinct races: Humans, Bangaa, Nu Mou, Moogles, and Viera. Each race has a different set of jobs, commonly referred to as classes in other RPGs, available to them. However, unlike in the primary Final Fantasy games, jobs aren’t exactly acquired as the game progresses. Instead, every job is technically available from the onset, but is limited on a per-character basis. Specifically, certain jobs require a character to master a certain number of abilities in other classes in order to switch into them.

In a contrast to most RPGs, the utility of equipment isn’t solely measured in how much they increase a character’s offensive or defensive capabilities. Abilities are learned in a similar fashion as magic was in Final Fantasy VI with the esper system in that certain weapons and armor grant abilities when equipped. Once a character has used the piece for a long enough time, they will master the ability, allowing them to use it without having to equip the appropriate item. Each ability requires a certain amount of points (AP) which are accumulated by having that character participate in battles or dispatch missions.

As soon as I was introduced to it, the job system has always been one of my favorite game mechanics in any JRPG. It allows players to come up with several inventive combinations for their characters and adds a lot of replay value. Among many other possibilities, you can have a mage master multiple schools of magic. I thought it was intriguing how each race has a different set of jobs; it’s an organic way of getting players to use a variety of characters.

The battles themselves are interesting as well. I think that much like its predecessor, the creators were able to successfully translate the overall feel of a Final Fantasy game into a strategy title. I enjoyed getting to see familiar classes and signature spells manifest in an entirely different style of game. I also like that there isn’t too much of a consequence for failure. In most conflicts, combatants who have run out of health are merely knocked out rather than permanently killed off. While I don’t mind when the latter happens, the former is nice every once in a while because it doesn’t punish the player too much for wanting to experiment a little.

There is one poorly-implemented mechanic that dampers the experience, however: the law system. A majority of engagements are overseen by a judge who imposes certain laws depending on the day. As long as they’re present, certain actions are forbidden while others are recommended. They can be anywhere from not allowing any fire-based attacks to downright intrusive such as disallowing the “Fight” command. Taking a recommended action or legally knocking an opponent out awards the unit with a judge point. These points are used for certain combination attacks and, later on in the game, to summon spirits to aid in battle.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance - Law System

On the other hand, performing an illegal act will have the judge penalize the offending party with a yellow card. Receiving one can have various effects such as permanently lowering a unit’s stats or taking away certain rewards upon winning. Should the same unit commit another infraction or if a forbidden action results in a knockout, they will receive a red card and be sent to jail where you’ll need to pay a fine to bail them out.

I speak no hyperbole when I say that this is one of the most annoying mechanics to ever present itself in a Final Fantasy game – spinoff or otherwise. There’s nothing stopping you from selecting a forbidden action. This wouldn’t be so bad except for the tiny detail that you have to cycle through a few menus in order to access the screen which displays the laws rather than have them exist on the top of the screen at all times. My least favorite thing about this mechanic is how it only ever seems to put you, the player, at a disadvantage. In theory, enemies have to obey the laws just like you. In practice, there are laws, such as not being allowed to damage monsters, that can only ever benefit enemies. That’s not even mentioning how most bosses can never get slapped with a red card, though that’s a little more understandable. An ultimate showdown with a godlike creature would be anticlimactic if it ended with it getting carted off to jail.

Most of the time when I’m confronted with an unpolished mechanic, I can at least see what could have been done to improve it. This case is interesting in that the only improvement I can come up with is to not include the law system at all. To be fair, it does have its role in the plot and there are ways to get around it later, but it’s almost never a good idea to have story elements intrude on the gameplay. The best creators find ways to integrate story and game mechanics so that they enhance each other without making either aspect suffer in quality.

Analyzing the Story

WARNING: This section will contain unmarked spoilers. If you are at all interested in playing Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, I suggest you skip to the conclusion.

Marche is the newest student in St. Ivalice. During recess, things quickly go awry when a group of hooligans use the opportunity to bully their favorite target, Mewt, by pelting him with a salvo of snowballs. Once school has ended, Marche decides to invite Mewt and Ritz to his house after the former claims to have found an interesting book. Joined by his younger brother, Doned, who was rendered an invalid due to a serious illness, the three of them page through the book only to discover that, as interesting as it is, they can’t decipher a single word. After pondering what would be like if the book’s world was real, the kids then ask each other which video game setting they would make into a reality. Mewt goes with an obvious choice.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance - Favorite Game

Evidently, humility was forbidden on the day this part of the scenario was written.

Marche is shocked when he wakes up the next morning to discover that St. Ivalice has vanished and a fantasy realm has appeared in its stead. After fighting off a belligerent man and his cohort, he learns that he has awakened in the land of Ivalice: the world Mewt wished to make real. In this new world, many people form clans, effectively a group of sellswords who will take on any job, be it dangerous or mundane, for a price. Marche is invited by one of the world’s denizens, a moogle named Montblanc, to join his clan. From there, he begins his journey to solve the mystery behind the world’s transformation.

All kidding aside, I actually found myself liking the premise of this game, as it sort of manages to be the video game equivalent of The Neverending Story. It’s a commonly-used premise to have characters being thrust into a completely different universe, but it’s one that works well in the hands of competent writers. The best part of the plot was watching Marche develop from an unsure fish-out-of-water to a competent leader of a mercenary band.

Despite this, the story of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance remains somewhat controversial among fans. There is a persistent theory among those who have played this game that Marche, the protagonist, is the true villain of this scenario. Ordinarily, the fans’ willingness to paint an unambiguously heroic character as evil (or the opposite: whitewashing a completely irredeemable one) is an indication of how deranged the community can get. However, loathe as I am to admit it, these people raise valid points once in a blue moon, and this is indeed one of those cases.

Before we go any further, we need the proper context. About halfway through the game, it’s revealed that Ivalice is a product of Mewt’s imagination. In this realm, he is the prince of the kingdom with his mother, having seemingly been resurrected from the dead, serving as its queen. Marche learns of five crystals that are integral to Ivalice’s continued existence. He is determined to destroy every one of them so he and his friends can return to the real world.

The problem arises when one considers that the main characters all lead unequivocally better lives in this fantasy realm. Doned is no longer bound to a wheelchair, Mewt is surrounded by his subjects who adore him, and Ritz’s hair is naturally red – its real color being a popular subject for bullies to tease her over. Nonetheless, the narrative paints the game’s driving conflict as far more black-and-white than it is in practice, and there lies the root of the problem. There are many points in the game where it’s a little more than heavily implied that Mewt’s fantasy realm is every bit as real as St. Ivalice. Consequently, many fans see Marche as a genocidal maniac who has no qualms wiping out an entire reality and the people who reside in it. This also raises the question: why would Marche’s fellow mercenaries willingly go along with a plot that would see their world’s destruction should they succeed? Like many other legitimate inquiries, it shall remain unanswered.

What doesn’t help dispel this notion is how Marche, and by extension, the writers, can’t seem to come up with many convincing counterarguments when called out by the world’s inhabitants. The best he can do is try to convince Mewt that he, along with everyone else, should return to the real world in order to confront their problems – no matter how painful it might be for him personally. It all leads to one of the strangest messages I’ve seen in a game because I can’t figure out exactly what the writers are getting at. Ostensibly, the running theme is: escapism isn’t healthy, yet I would say inserting that little pearl of wisdom in a video game which takes nearly twenty hours to complete is, to put it lightly, extremely counterproductive.

It feels like a game that could have had two different branching paths: stay in this new world and start a new life from scratch or restore the old one having gained confidence through various trials and tribulations in the other dimension. Considering how after the final mission, Marche and his friends return home, yet somehow only Mewt left and various subplots can occur from there, the impression I got is that the writers couldn’t commit to anything, so they tried both ideas in the same narrative with disastrous results.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Great music
  • Job system allows for many possibilities
  • Good battle system
  • Decent map design
Cons:

  • Poor storytelling
  • Laws are absolutely insufferable
  • Protagonist can be considered unlikable
  • Weak cast

As good as the premise of this game is, the follow through has the potential to leave a sour taste in your mouth depending on how much you buy into the theory perpetuated by the series’ fans. I have to give it credit for attempting to demonstrate the traumatic effects the death of a loved one, bullying, and divorce have on children, but I found the cast a bit too bland and one-dimensional for this goodwill to leave any positive impact on the experience. Considering that for most of the game, the members of the main cast, with the obvious exception of Marche, are side characters who don’t join your clan, their arcs tend to be resolved very quickly with whatever sparse amounts of dialogue they have, making it difficult to care.

Fire Emblem: Blazing Sword and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance were the games that served as my introduction to the tactical role-playing-game subgenre. Ultimately, I would have to say that my feelings towards this game have become much more mixed over the years, and I accordingly find the task of recommending it a tricky one. While Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is far from being a bad game, it’s something of a paradox because it’s in a genre that thrives on good, or at least decent, storytelling. Therefore, when it’s of a dubious quality, it almost doesn’t matter how good the actual gameplay is or how much replay value it would have because there won’t be any satisfying goal to work towards; a little payoff can go a long way, after all.

Final Score: 5/10

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7 thoughts on “Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

  1. I once said that Tactics Advance was a better game than the original, and legit had to fight about it.

    I twigged to the idea that Marche’s morality is not as black and white as it appears before I ever read about it online, and that made the game a lot deeper for me. I was originally under the impression that square was writing that in there deliberately, just really clumsy when it came time to getting some payoff for it. The big fight being between shades of gray really felt so delicious to me, and there were plenty of ways Marche could have justified his point. He could have played the standard card and pointed out how nobody but Mewt got to hang with their families anymore, talk about the plenty of humans who got transformed to zombies or monsters or got killed in the Jagds, show how living in the fantasy world led Mewt to emotionally regress to the point he was little more than a coddled toddler, bring up the fact that Mewt’s fantasy world just rearranges the social structures so that all the title characters are near the top of it without eliminating them so that nobody has to deal with the problems Mewt and Ritz has, or get to the point that a lot of their problems still existed even after the supposed source of them was no longer there. Marche has a justifiable position. He just never brings it up. I thought that either he or the authors weren’t up to the task of arguing for it, but no. The writers just stumbled onto an accidental bit of genius. Tactics Advance came out in a really weird time for Square, just after their merger, and for whatever reason, they went through a few years of putting out games with really poor or underserved stories. Their plots didn’t feel like they were putting in effort and taking risks until Final Fantasy XII came out, and that’s a really mixed experience.

    And yeah. The laws. I could see their occasional application, something made for a specific fight in order to create a sort of specialized fight. Or an optional challenge mode, again with the laws tailored to the specific fight they’re being applied to. Just a universal, random application just makes for an unfocused, poor experience. It’s a little fun occasionally, once you get to play with the law cards, to completely screw up your opponents by dropping the wrong law on them, but those don’t work when you need them the most and they do’t make up for the pain of dealing with them in the first place. Although I remember abusing the law system at least once, deliberately getting a character a yellow card infraction so the judge would take up the space right next to them, preventing a powerful enemy from settling in right there during a desperate fight.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You fought with a Final Fantasy fan? I heard that can be an arduous process.

      You were a step ahead of me. I didn’t really think much of the potentially gray morality until a few years after I played the game when I read about it online. Then again, I was fourteen when I played this game for the first time, so it’s not too surprising that aspect would fly right over my head. I did, however, pick up on the fact that some of the undead enemies in certain missions have the same names as the bullies who ganged up on Mewt during the snowball fight. Now, I’m able to realize that things didn’t turn out well for all of the citizens of St. Ivalice. After all, how are any of the other monsters different? It’s unlikely they came out of nowhere. Every single one of them could have been a normal person whose sole purpose in this new world is to constantly get beaten up in an endless cycle that would only end if they died in one of the Jagd regions or got captured and subsequently enslaved by an adventuring Hunter. Plus, it’s difficult to believe that every single one of them was a bad person who deserved this. If Marche had realized this aspect alone, it could have given him more strength in his convictions. And as exactly as you say, he never thinks to bring this up – or any of the other completely legitimate points you brought up. This kind of storytelling would get laughed off the stage in any other medium.

      In a way, I would have to say this was sort of a precursor to the audio log fiasco we talked about a while back in that there were many perfectly good explanations Marche could have come up with for his actions, but they never quite make their way into the narrative, potentially leaving players in total confusion. Though it’s a bit different from that situation in that Tactics Advance needed those extra justifications in order for its genius to shine through as opposed to the situation in The Last of Us where adding that piece of information ruined the moral ambiguity (in addition to, as you said, making the final exchange nonsensical). In practice, I would have to say that Tactics Advance is sort of like a beginner playing poker drawing a four of a kind right away only to trade all their cards because they thought they had a bad hand.

      Now, that’s some lateral thinking! I do remember manipulating the laws in order to make the final battle easier. What I did was I eliminated all the laws with an almighty card and prohibited damaging humans. This meant that the boss’s flunkies could barely act while I could deal with her unhindered (that mission ends once the boss has fallen). It didn’t make up for the numerous times I got red carded because I forgot what laws were in place, though. It’s ridiculous how by the end of the game, there are three rules you have to worry about.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I hadn’t thought about it, but that’s an excellent parallel between Tactics Advance and the Last of Us. A very similar problem, leading to similar results, applied in opposite directions.

        And man, the laws. I remember too many times when it turned out my Assassin was the only person who could fight because Damage to Nu Mou or whatever was forbidden. They got impossible to keep track of. And then you got sent to jail because you hit someone with a staff instead of a stave or you forgot you weren’t allowed to kill monsters in the level where you have to kill monsters to win. That whole system was just broken.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know why I haven’t been getting email notifications about your updates, but I see you’ve written a good number of reviews lately. You might even catch up to me! O_O

    Anyway, I loved Tactics Advance back in the day, but I admit I haven’t played it in probably about twelve years, so I can’t say how well it holds up. I still enjoy the art direction and class choices though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s very strange. I do remember one time when the app failed to load new articles, but I fixed it by reinstalling it. It’s probably a glitch.

      I too enjoyed Tactics Advance a lot back in the 2000s. It’s pretty good, but I found that Fire Emblem has held up better simply by virtue of having a stronger cast and a less potentially problematic story. It doesn’t help that in this game, most of the characters you control are randomly generated.

      Liked by 1 person

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